Friends with Words

Just after the turn of the century, Joseph Conrad partnered with Ford Madox Ford to write three novels, beginning with The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story. They’re not great novels, nor were they received as such on publication. Conrad would later dub the partnership the “fatal collaboration.” The friendship would flame out by 1909, and both men would find success with their own solo works, Ford’s most notable being The Good Soldier (1915) and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-28).

Yet, it’s impossible to dismiss the collaboration as a mere mistake, writes Polish biography Zdzislaw Najder in his Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Njader explains that Conrad’s reasons for seeking out a collaborator were personal and professional more than pecuniary:

In his first preserved letter to Ford, Conrad described himself as a “self-made philosopher and a pilgrim on the stony path of Art.” He felt lonely on his pilgrimage; he was firmly established neither in the English literary milieu nor in literature as a profession; his sense of maladjustment to the role of writer was frequently revealed in his letters. With a neighbor who could be his regular partner in work and discussion and who shared his passionate interest in the art of the novel, Conrad could fend off loneliness and, at the same time, gain a firm foothold in the world of literature. And since Conrad’s greatest problem was that he worked slowly and sometimes was unable to write at all, a connection with Ford, who wrote with speed and ease, was particularly attractive.

The most important argument in favor of the arrangement must have been the opportunity to perfect his English by acquiring a keener sense of the shades of meaning and emotional associations linked with words, expressions, or rhythms. Until then the two principal sources of Conrad’s knowledge of English were the colloquial language of the sailors and the books he read; that left substantial areas where he was insecure.

Najder goes on to describe Ford as a “kind of honorary foreigner” – due to his “snobbery, coupled with his cult of French literature,” more than his German ancestry – and to recognize in him a natural ally to Conrad’s “genuine foreigner.” Both their sensibilities ran counter to a time in which the English (and Americans) were intensely xenophobic.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s protagonist Marlow writes:

I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and can never tell what it really means.

By striving to write in (better) English, however – and here I draw my own conclusions – Conrad also sought to discover and establish a more uniform self, one that would conform to the world he had chosen and the expectations of his compatriots, a self that would, perhaps, make reality less of an agony, less of a “horror.”

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